'Supercell storm' batters Australian city, leaving damages of $111 million

BRISBANE, Australia (AFP) - Planes were flipped and roofs ripped off when hail and powerful winds tore through Australia's east coast, leaving an A$100 million (S$111 million) damage bill as the army helped clear up on Friday.

The storm, which officials said was one of the worst seen in the country and the strongest to hit the city of Brisbane in three decades, rained hailstones the size of tennis balls on cars and buildings late on Thursday, flooding streets and injuring 39 people.

Gusts of up to 140 kmh, as strong as a Category Two cyclone, also uprooted trees and brought down power lines.

In one of the more dramatic scenes, at least four light planes were flipped over at Archerfield Airport, 11km from Brisbane's central business district. "It looks like the apocalypse," one resident of an apartment building that had its metal roof wrenched off by the storm and blown more than 100 metres told reporters.

Queensland state Premier Campbell Newman said it was the "biggest storm that has hit Brisbane since 1985" but was grateful none of those injured were seriously hurt.

"It was a terrible storm, but thankfully no one's been seriously injured or worse," he told ABC radio.

The devastating tempest started as an ordinary cell south of Brisbane on Thursday afternoon and tracked north, encountering moist air from sea breezes that helped it develop into a supercell, the Bureau of Meteorology's Pradeep Singh told AFP.

"A supercell has a vortex - the air is spinning around it as it moves up. When that happens, it takes the moisture above the freezing level and keeps it there for a long time," the senior meteorologist said.

"Rain particles keep developing bigger and bigger into hail, and because the draft is so strong in supercells, they tend to stay for a long time up in the air and when they reach the right weight, they start dropping down."

The damage bill was estimated to rise above A$100 million, the state's Transport Minister Scott Emerson said, describing the battering Brisbane received as "extraordinary".

The Insurance Council of Australia described the storm as a catastrophic weather event and said it had so far received 3,200 claims of more than A$27 million.

At least 500 power lines were down on Friday morning and 65,000 homes and businesses remained without electricity as crews worked to restore the network.

Dozens of schools were closed, while hundreds of soldiers from the military's Emergency Support Force helped remove trees and debris off Brisbane's roads.